“I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan. I only want to be Kobe Bryant.”
Over the past year and a half, a narrative of deep relief has been palpable among the Milwaukee faithful. Since David Stearns took the reins of the front office the Brewers have made grand, albeit remedial, strides to catch up with the rest of baseball in how the organization is run. That the farm system currently ranks as one of the consensus top four in all of baseball, less than two years into Stearns’s grand project, is a promising development, let there be no doubt.
But, as everyone on this planet who has tasted even the smallest sample of success can attest to, copying other successful models can only get you so far. Champions are born not from imitation, but from innovation. Last year, the Cleveland Indians brought back the old-school-style fireman reliever that we haven’t seen in generations, deploying Andrew Miller in a varying but heavily-leveraged role that reacted to the position the team was in. Several years prior, the Cubs became one of the first teams to make international signings a key cornerstone of their minor-league system. Without jumping out on those respective ledges, neither team claims a pennant this prior fall. It’s not enough to simply repeat what took the last guy to the top. Teams need to bring something fresh and new to the table, something that nobody else has ever seen before.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to explore a few potential strategies which, in 2017 and maybe even beyond, the Brewers could pursue which will range from “rather unorthodox” to “completely unprecedented.” In some cases, these proposed strategies might make tradition-worshiping baseball fans cringe. But though they might brush up against convention, though they might initially jump out as nonsensical, each of them could give Milwaukee just enough of an edge to push ahead of the rest of the pack in the coming years.
When I broke down the candidates for Milwaukee’s starting rotation a few weeks ago, one reader was inspired to suggest in the comments that the Brewers capitalize on their deep, but largely starless, stock of pitchers and employ a piggyback-style starting rotation during 2017.
For those who have yet to come into contact with the term, a “piggyback” rotation usually employs just four different starters, but each of the four starters is on a short pitch count, usually just 75. Additionally, either three or four pitchers are employed as a rotating crew of first men out of the bullpen, so to speak, working usually with a pitch count of around 50 or so. In a seven-man piggyback, the four starters and three long relievers are usually kept separate in their roles, with the starters working deeper and the relievers working more to essentially achieve a balanced workload. In the eight-man version pitchers are paired off into tandems, usually with the strategic aim of teaming together two wildly contrasting styles and repertoires. The two partners in a tandem will alternate between starting and relieving.
There’s also a partial version that some teams employ, as well. Eighty percent of the starting rotation functions as usual, but the fifth spot is filled by a piggyback tandem who alternate their starts. This means that five is no longer the upper limit to the number of “starters” you can find work for. There’s a structural setup to accommodate six, seven, or eight pitchers. Any more than that, though, and the bullpen goes from “shorthanded” to “catastrophically shorthanded.”
The piggyback rotation is already common in the lower levels of the minor leagues. It’s standard to have sox-to-eight starters to a team at those levels, and the piggyback setup allows the big-league team to get an extended look at every last one of them, rather than being forced to cull to just five. That far out from the big leagues, when none of your pitchers are a sure thing and even the best “prospects” need significant development yet, such a setup is obviously preferable. And for all of the crap I’ve posthumously shoveled on the Doug Melvin front office during my tenure here at BP Milwaukee, I’ll freely admit that Melvin wasn’t out-of-touch in every regard. For one example, he did implement a piggyback system in the organization up to the Class A level as far back as 2010.
As you climb the minor league ladder, though, priorities change. Some of those iffy starters fall off, or become bullpen arms, and at the same time the remaining starters need to build up their stamina. Because of this, you don’t see piggyback rotations at the AA level or above too often. Back in 2014, when the Astros were in their “flaunt tradition by any means necessary” phase as an organization, they piggybacked their entire minor-league system for a brief period. As it turned out, they weren’t engaging in the final round of testing before unleashing The Starting Rotation of the Future on the big leagues en route to the top of the standings. They were just overloaded with starting pitchers at every minor-league level, and the piggyback rotation was the most practical was to get everyone enough work. As their AAA pitching prospects trickled up to the big leagues, the Astros quietly abandoned the AAA piggyback system, but that wasn’t because it failed. The glut of starters at that level had just cleared out, so the traditional five-man look became the more practical option for them.
At the Major League level, the piggyback rotation has been used by at least one team. In 2012, the Colorado Rockies’ pitching woes, well documented going back to the franchise’s birth, probably hit their ultimate low. The team was 18 games below .500 on June 20th with a starting rotation that had put up an unbelievable 6.28 ERA to that point. Using the logic of “doing nothing would be a far greater offense than trying something unorthodox,” the Rockies went to a seven-man piggyback rotation. The results were relatively better, but still not great, and the piggyback rotation has not been seen in the majors in any official capacity since then.
Is the piggyback rotation a better means of organizing a pitching staff if you’re looking to win games? We really don’t know. Russell Carleton broke down the implications of such a strategy several years ago for Baseball Prospectus, eventually arriving at a conclusion of “there is a set of circumstance in which you could argue that this system could actually turn a profit–but is that profit worth restructuring the entirety of how a pitching staff is conceptualized?”
I would argue that the Brewers have arrived at exactly the set of circumstances Carleton described. The Brewers are coming into Spring Training with a dozen or more starting pitchers vying for roster spots, none of whom are truly “established.” Even Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, the guys I classified as “mortal locks” to start the season in the rotation, were both rookies in 2016. Neither of them is the type of player who can claim to be “above” such an experiment.
It could be that this new type of pitching staff works, but with the pitifully small and skewed sample of data we have already, no one can say for sure. In the meantime, we do know that a piggyback-style rotation allows teams to successfully evaluate more starting pitchers. And that, alone, might make it a better fit for the 2017 Brewers than the traditional look.